BOSTON (CN) — A Harvard professor who opined on the ethics of accepting money from convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein brought a federal defamation complaint Monday against The New York Times.
Lawrence Lessig says the Times mischaracterized his sympathy for Joichi Ito, the former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media lab who had to resign over a $750,000 Epstein donation that went primarily to MIT’s media lab.
“A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret,” the Times headline blared on Sept. 14, 2019, about a month after Epstein was found dead in the New York prison where he was awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.
Represented by Howard Cooper from Todd & Weld, Lessig says the clickbait headline is the opposite of what he told Times reporter Nellie Bowles in lengthy interviews as news about Epstein’s MIT donation stirred controversy.
“Defendants’ actions here are part of a growing journalistic culture of clickbaiting: the use of a shocking headline and/or lede to entice readers to click on a particular article, irrespective of the truth of the headline,” the complaint states. “Defendants are fully aware that many, if not most, readers never read past the clickbait and that their takeaway concerning the target of the headline is limited to what they read in the headline.”
Before the Times piece, in an essay on Medium.com, Lessig said Ito was wrong to accept a donation from Epstein but that he understood how Ito could have made that mistake. Part of his argument was that people who do terrible things should be allowed to donate to worthy causes, but that those donations should be anonymous, so that they are not entitled to positive publicity.
Lessig says the Times ignored this nuance, however, and that the suggestion that he condoned Epstein’s donation has harmed his reputation.
“Within hours, Lessig became associated with the notoriety surrounding the Epstein scandal, and the community that quietly or silently tolerated such monstrosity,” the complaint states.
The Times never corrected the reporter despite a promise from reporter Bowles, according to the complaint.
Representatives for the Times did not respond to an email seeking comment.